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A new way of thinking

Complexity represents a shift away from the simplifying, reductionist approach that has traditionally shaped scientific enquiry.

Until the mid-twentieth century, most sciences based their method on specialization and abstraction, i.e., reducing knowledge of a whole to knowledge of its constituent parts (as though the organization of a whole did not generate new properties in relation to those of its separate parts). Their key concept was determinism, in other words the denial of random factors and new factors and the application of the mechanical logic of artificial machines to the problems of living beings and social life.

Knowledge must make use of abstraction, but it must also be constructed by reference to context and hence must mobilize what the enquirer knows about the world. Individual facts can only be fully understood by those who maintain and cultivate their general intelligence and mobilize their overall knowledge. Admittedly, it is impossible to know everything about the world or to grasp its many varied transformations. But no matter how difficult this may be, an attempt must be made to understand the key problems of the world, for otherwise we would be cognitive idiots. This is particularly true today because the context of all political economic, anthropological knowledge has become global. As a result of globalization, everything must be situated in the planetary context. Knowledge of the world as such is necessary both for intellectual satisfaction and for life itself. Every citizen faces the problem of gaining access to information about the world, and then of piecing it together and organizing it. To do this, a new form of thinking is needed.

In the first place, the kind of thinking that separates must be supplemented with a kind of thinking that makes connections. Complexus means “that which is woven together“. Complex thought is a kind of thought that unites distinction with conjunction. Secondly, it is necessary to come to grips with uncertainty. The dogma of universal determinism has collapsed. The universe is not subject to the absolute sovereignty of order; it is the outcome of a “dialogical“ relationship (a relationship that is both antagonistic, concurrent and complementary) between order, disorder and organization.

Complexity thus connects (contextualizes and globalizes) and also comes to grips with the challenge of uncertainty. How does it do this ?

The three theories

One approach to complexity is provided by three theories - information theory, cybernetics and systems theory. These theories, which are closely related and indeed inseparable, emerged in the early 1940s and have had a far-reaching cross-fertilizing effect on one another.

Information theory gives access to a universe where there are both order (redundancy) and disorder (noise) and derives something new from it, i.e information itself, which then becomes the organizing (programming) instrument of a cybernetic machine. For example, information that gives the name of the victor of a battle resolves an uncertainty. Information that announces the sudden death of a tyrant introduces an unexpected new element into a situation.

Cybernetics is a theory of self-controlling machines. The idea of feedback, introduced by the U.S mathematician Norbert Wiener, breaks with the idea of linear causality and introduces that of the causal loop. The cause acts on the effect and the effect on the cause, as in a heating system where a thermostat controls the operation of a boiler. This regulatory mechanism makes the system autonomous, in this case ensuring that an apartment has thermic autonomy from the colder temperature outside. The feed-back loop may act as an amplifying mechanism, e.g. in a situation where an armed conflict reaches a critical stage. The violence of one adversary triggers off a violent reaction which in turn triggers off another, even more violent reaction. Very many instances of this sort of inflationary or stabilizing feedback can be found in economic, social, political or psychological phenomena.

Systems theory provides the basis of a way of thinking about organization. The first lesson of systems analysis is that « the whole is more than the sum of its parts ». This means that properties emerge from the organization of a whole and may have a retroactive effect on the parts. For instance, water is an emergent property of the hydrogen and oxygen of which it is composed. The whole is also less than the sum of its parts, since the parts may have properties that are inhibited by the organization of the whole.


In addition to these three theories are a number of conceptual developments related to the idea of self-organization. Four names that must be mentioned in this context are those of John von Neumann, Heinz von Foerster, Henri Atlan and Ilya Prigogine.
In his theory of automata, von Neumann considered the difference between artificial automata and « living machines ». He pointed to the paradox whereby the components of artificial machines, although very well designed and engineered, deteriorate as soon as the machine starts to operate. Living machines, on the other hand, are made of extremely unreliable components, such as proteins, which are constantly subject to dete- rioriation. However, these machines have the unusual property of being able to develop and reproduce themselves; they regenerate themselves through replacing damaged molecules by new molecules, and dead cells by new cells. An artificial machine cannot repair itself, whereas a living machine constantly regenerates when its cells die. It is, as Heraclitus put it, « life from death and death from life ».
Von Foerster’s contribution is his discovery of the principle of « order from noise ». If a box containing a haphazardly arranged collectionof cubes, each magnetized on two faces, is shaken, the cubes spontaneously form themselves into a coherent whole. A principle of order (magnetization) plus disordered energy have created an ordered organization. In this way, order is created from disorder. 

Henri Atlan has developed the theory of « random organization ». At the birth of the universe there was an order/disorder/organization dialogic triggered off by calorific turbulence (disorder), in which, under certain conditions (random encounters) organizing principles made possible the creation of nuclear atoms, galaxies and stars. This dialogic recurred when life emerged via encounters between macro-molecules within a kind of self-productive loop which eventually became a living self-organization. The dialogic between order, disorder and organization exists in a wide variety of forms, and via countless feedback processes is constantly in action in the physical, biological and human worlds.
Prigogine introduced the idea of self-organization from disorder in a different way. In so-called Rayleigh-Bénard convection cells, coherent structures are formed and maintained between two temperature levels when a thin layer of silicone oil is carefully heated. In order to be sustainable, these structures need supplies of energy which they consume and dissipate. Living beings have sufficient autonomy to draw energy from their environment and even extract information from it and absorb its organization. I have called this process auto-eco-organization.
The study of complex phenomena can thus be seen as a building with several floors. The ground floor consists of the three theories (information, cybernetics and systems) and contains the tools needed to develop a theory of organization. On the second floor are the ideas of von Neumann, von Foerster, Atlan  and Prigogine on self-organization. I have added some other features to the building, notably the dialogical principle, the recursion principle and the hologrammatic principle. ‘Complex thought incorporates uncertainty and is capable of conceiving organization.’

The three principles

The dialogical principle  brings  together  two  antagonistic  principles  or  notions  which  on  the  face  of  things  should  repel  one  another  but  are  in  fact  indissociable  and  essential  for  understanding  a  single  reality.  The  physicist  Niels  Bohr  believed  that  physical  particles  should  be  regarded  as  both  corpuscles  and  waves.  Blaise  Pascal  said  that  the  "the  opposite  of  a  truth  is  not  an  error  but  a  contrary  truth."  Bohr  put  this  in  the  following  terms:  "The  opposite  of  a  trivial  truth  is  a  stupid  error,  but  the  opposite  of  a  profound  truth  is  always  another  profound  truth".  The  problem  is  that  of  combining  antagonistic  notions  in  order  to  envisage  the  organizational  and  creative  processes  in  the  complex  world  of  human  life  and  history.  

The  principle  of  organizational  recursion  goes  further  than  the  feedback  principle;  it  goes  beyond  the  idea  of  regulation  to  that  of  self-production  and  self-organization.  It  is  a  generating  loop  in  which  products  and  effects  themselves  produce  and  cause  what  produces  them.  Thus  we,  as  individuals,  are  the  products  of  an  age-old  system  of  reproduction,  but  this  system  can  reproduce  itself  only  if  we  ourselves  become  its  producers  by  procreating.  Individual  human  beings  produce  society  in  and  through  their  interactions,  but  society,  as  an  emerging  whole,  produces  the  humanity  of  individuals  by  conferring  language  and  culture  on  them.  

The  "hologrammatic"  principle  highlights  the  apparent  paradox  of  certain  systems  where  not  only  is  the  part  present  in  the  whole,  but  the  whole  is  present  in  the  part:  the  totality  of  the  genetic  heritage  is  present  in  each  individual  cell.  In  the  same  way,  the  individual  is  part  of  society  but  society  is  present  in  every  individual,  through  his  or  her  language,  culture  and  standards.  


Thinking  in  terms  of  complexity  is  clearly  not  a  mode  of  thought  that  replaces  certainty  with  uncertainty,  separation  with  inseparability,  and  logic  with  all  kinds  of  special  exceptions.  On  the  contrary,  it  involves  a  constant  toing  and  froing  between  certainty  and  uncertainty,  between  the  elementary  and  the  global,  between  the  separable  and  the  inseparable.  The  aim  is  not  to  abandon  the  principles  of  classical  science  order,  separability  and  logic  but  to  absorb  them  into  a  broader  and  richer  scheme  of  things.  The  aim  is  not  to  set  a  vacuous  all-purpose  holism  against  systematic  reductionism,  but  to  attach  the  concreteness  of  the  parts  to  the  totality.  Linkage  must  be  made  between  the  principles  of  order  and  disorder,  separation  and  connection,  autonomy  and  dependence,  which  are  at  one  and  the  same  time  complementary,  concurrent  and  antagonistic.  In  short,  complex  thought  is  not  the  opposite  of  simplifying  thought;  it  incorporates  simplifying  thought.  As  Hegel  might  have  put  it,  it  unites  simplicity  and  complexity  and  ultimately  reveals  its  own  simplicity.  In  fact,  the  paradigm  of  complexity  can  be  described  just  as  simply  as  that  of  simplicity.  Whereas  the latter  requires  us  to  dissociate  and  reduce,  the  paradigm  of  complexity  requires  us  to  connect  as  well  as  to  distinguish.  Complex  thought  is  essentially  thought  which  incorporates  uncertainty  and  is  capable  of  conceiving  organization.  It  is  capable  of  linking,  contextualizing  and  globalizing  but  can  at  the  same  time  acknowledge  what  is  singular  and  concrete. 


Read also:

Edgar Morin in the UNESCO Courier

Edgar Morin

French sociologist, Edgar Morin is emeritus director of research with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). His most recent work published in English is Towards a Study of Humankind. Vol 1: The Nature of nature (1992).